DEFRA published its Protecting and enhancing England’s trees and woodlands consultation paper on 30 December 2018, with a deadline of 28 February 2019 for responses. The proposals include imposing new statutory duties on local authorities:
⁃ “a duty to consult on the felling of street trees”
⁃ “a duty to report on tree felling and planting”
Presumably these are intended to be included in the forthcoming Environment Bill and they could justifiably be known as “Sheffield’s Law”. After all they of course have their roots in the peculiar saga there, where the city council and its PFI contractor Amey have been engaged in systematic felling of roadside trees at an unprecedented scale.
I reported in my 17 December 2016 Trees In Court: A Festive Special blog post on the the late Gilbart J’s rejection, in R (Dillner) v Sheffield City Council (27 April 2016) of a local resident’s challenge to that process. The judge commented: “It may be that those who will be disappointed by the terms of this Judgment will want to see a different legislative regime in place. That is a matter for Parliament, and not for this Court.
The continued felling led to significant protests, with arrests, curiously, made under section section 241 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992. (The Independent Office for Police Conduct subsequently found in August 2018 that the arrests and detention were inappropriate and in December 2018 compensation payments were awarded).
The commitment in the Conservative Party’s manifesto in May 2017 surely specifically had the Sheffield situation in mind:
“In addition to the 11 million trees we are planting across our nation, we will ensure that 1 million more are planted in our towns and cities, and place new duties on councils to consult when they wish to cut down street trees.” (my emboldening).
On the back of the Gilbart J ruling, an injunction in relation to continuing protests was ordered by Males J in Sheffield City Council v Fairhall and others (15 August 2017) in the following terms:
“Accordingly I order that the three remaining named defendants must not:
(1) enter any safety zone erected around any tree within the area shown edged red on the plan which will be attached to the order (the area of Sheffield City);
(2) seek to prevent the erection of any safety zone;
(3) remain in any safety zone after it is erected;
(4) knowingly leave any vehicle in any safety zone or intentionally place a vehicle in a position so as to prevent the erection of a safety zone; or
(5) encourage, aid, counsel, direct or facilitate anybody else to do any of the matters in paragraphs 1 – 4 above including by posting social media messages.
2. There will in addition be an order in the same terms against persons unknown being persons intending to enter or remain in safety zones erected on public highways in the city of Sheffield. Such an order is appropriate in accordance with the principle established in Hampshire Waste Services Ltd v Intending Trespassers upon Chineham Incinerator Site  EWHC 1738 (Ch).”
Like Gilbart J, Males J distanced himself from the wider issues:
“I must emphasise that this judgment deals solely with the legal question whether the council is entitled to an injunction. That will include consideration of whether as a matter of law the council is entitled to exclude members of the public from safety zones around trees so that those trees can be felled and whether or to what extent those who object to this course are entitled to maintain a presence within safety zones in order to prevent the work from being carried out. However, I express no view, one way or the other, as to the merits of the council’s tree felling programme or the objectors’ campaign. Those are social and environmental questions which are politically controversial and can only be resolved in a political forum. They are not a matter for this court”
Following the June 2017 general election, Michael Gove had of course been brought back into the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In March 2018 he was reported by the BBC as having “accused Sheffield City Council of “environmental vandalism” and promised to do “anything required” to end its controversial tree-felling programme.”
Felling paused the day after, although the city council renewed its injunction in July 2018, by way of a High Court ruling (His Honour Judge Robinson, 12 July 2018)
The Yorkshire Post reported on 13 December 2018 that the city council now announced a revised tree management strategy, reducing significantly the amount of felling proposed.
So back to the DEFRA consultation proposals.
‘Street trees‘ are defined as “managed trees lining the highway within the urban environment“. The duty to consult would not apply to other urban trees such as parks or open spaces.
The idea is that the “local authority” (presumably the local highway authority, although this is not made clear – eg presumably TfL in London in relation to the TfL network?) would consult “on every tree proposed for felling during a four week closed consultation period. A notice inviting consultation to be placed on the tree, letters sent to local residents in close proximity to the tree (100m2). If more than 50% of respondents in the closed consultation disagree with the proposal this will trigger a full public consultation.” Full consultation appears to mean “a notice published in the town hall and online“.
Is this workable? Assuming that there would often need to be a full consultation process, how long would this all take, bearing in mind that the consultation responses would then need to be conscientiously considered by the authority, presumably at a relevant committee meeting held in public with officer’s report and so on, before a legally robust decision could be taken?
There would be exemptions, the scope of which could well lead to dispute:
“1. Dangerous: Tree needs to be felled because it presents an immediate danger and work is urgently needed to remove that danger. Trees that immediately affect the operational use of the footway by people – forcing them to use the carriageway – are considered dangerous for the purposes of this policy.
2. Responding to a pest or disease instance:Removal of a tree is a critical partof the implementation of a management or control programme, following notification by regulatory authority in response to a pest or disease instance.
4. Damaging:Tree needs to be felled because it is causing significant damage to
the apparatus of a statutory undertaker (such as gas, electricity or water) where urgent access is required for repair; or tree needs to be felled because it can be demonstrated that it is causing significant damage and threatens the integrity of a footpath or carriageway to such an extent that it presents an imminent danger.
5. Young Trees Damaged/Failed:Young trees (up to fifteen years old) which will be replaced within two years. The position of the tree has already been established. Consultation could lead to discussion that undermines that decision when replacement is essentially a maintenance management activity”
There is a further complication:
“Trees designated as having special historic or cultural significance would automatically be subject to wider public consultation. To meet this definition trees would have to meet one of the following criteria. The tree may be:
• culturally, historically, ecologically significant – such as veteran trees
• linked to a person or event that is culturally or historically significant
For trees that meet this criteria an extraordinary measure/action or level of resource can be taken or dedicated to its preservation. The local authority may initially be unaware of this significance so a full consultation where significance is suspected or raised as an issue is essential.”
So yet again we are faced with quite a complex, or at least fiddly and fine grained, regime to deliver on a superficially nice idea – and to what end? If Sheffield City Council had followed these procedures the outcomes could well have been the same.
I also find it strange that there is no mention in the document of the town and country planning regime, for example the role of tree preservation orders and the protection provided to trees in conservation areas. Would not amendments to the planning regime not have been more logical?
The separate proposed duty to report on tree felling and replanting raises a further issue. The document is silent about the intended frequency of reporting but let’s assume it is to be annual. This reporting will not just cover street trees but will be much wider:
“Local authorities would be required to record on felling and planting activity for which they are both directly and indirectly responsible, including trees which are felled as part of planning decisions.”
So could we see “local authorities” (by which I assume is meant local highway authorities) have to collect data as to how many trees are to be felled as a result of planning decisions by the local planning authority (that are not even on highway land), or will this only apply to unitary authorities? More thinking required!
I have managed to avoid mention of the separate, much more complex, set of proposals within DEFRA’s other current consultation, on biodiversity net gain (2 December 2018). That also has some major potential implications – these days planners’ eyes need to be on DEFRA as much as MHCLG it seems to me.
Simon Ricketts, 5 January 2019
Personal views, et cetera
Photo courtesy of the Woodland Trust